“The central message is simple: our faith is profoundly social. We cannot be called truly ‘Catholic’ unless we hear and heed the Church’s call to serve those in need and work for justice and peace.”
–Communities of Salt and Light, U.S. Bishops, 1993
We often hear the phrase “Catholic Social Teaching” tossed around as if it is common knowledge, especially here at Boston College. But what does it really mean? Is Catholic Social Teaching (CST) a synonym for social justice? Is it a concise set of principles…and if so, what are they? Does it refer to a specific collection of documents written by Catholic bishops and popes…and if so, what are they about and where can they be found? Is it a catchphrase for a broad array of ideas about social life that have evolved over the Catholic Church’s long history?
In Responses to 101 Questions on Catholic Social Teaching, BC Theology Professor Kenneth Himes, O.F.M. writes, “the expression CST is elastic, sometimes designating an expansive body of material and at other times used in a more constricted sense to identify a limited number of papal and episcopal writings dating from the papacy of Leo XIII. Perhaps we can understand the term Catholic Social Teaching as an effort by the pastoral teachers of the church to articulate what the broader social tradition means in the era of modern economics, politics and culture.” (5) Himes’ book – just over 100 pages with a bibliography for further reading – provides an excellent, accessible and brief introduction to CST. Organized thematically in question-answer format, the book can be read quickly, digested slowly as time allows, or used as a handy reference guide when specific questions arise. It covers general background information, key themes and seminal documents regarding what many have called “the church’s best kept secret.” But perhaps the most interesting section is the final one – “Specific Concerns” – in which Himes tackles questions such as: What does CST have to say about women in society? Does CST say anything about racism and race relations? Has CST made any difference in the real world of American politics, economics and culture?
Another excellent online resource for learning about CST comes to us from the Office of Social Justice (OSJ,) which is a Program of Catholic Charities of St. Paul and Minneapolis. The Catholic Social Teaching page on the OSJ website highlights major themes (with two concise handouts that you can download and use), major documents, notable quotations, and a Q-A section based on Himes’ book. It also contains a “teacher’s toolbox” with many more use-friendly resources for learning and teaching about CST.
Finally, you might check out “The Busy Christian’s Guide to Catholic Social Teaching,” a very short resource which contextualizes the CST tradition within history by providing a useful timeline of key CST documents alongside a broader timeline of major world historical moments.